Abe Mills and Stephen Jones: Love Thy Neighbor
The complexities surrounding conversations of racism today are numberless but the root of the solution is the two great commandments: love God and love your neighbor as yourself. On this week’s episode, we talk with Abe Mills and Stephen Jones, two black Latter-day Saints, about their experiences with racism within Church culture, the faith of those who came before them, and why they don’t hesitate to share their faith in Jesus Christ.
Understanding what He did for us, it gives us hope, which we live in a world with a lot of people that have no hope or they’ve lost their hope—whether it’s hope in equality, hope in fairness, hope in whatever—they’ve lost their hope, but the gospel has taught us hope because we know what Jesus Christ did for us. It has taught us understanding because we know Christ was the example of understanding, and on top of that, it has taught us forgiveness, or how to forgive, in a time where forgiveness is needed greatly.
Article: Medium Op-ed from President Nelson and NAACP leaders: "Locking Arms for Racial Harmony in America."
Video: Stephen's BYU Library Commercial "New Spice | Study like a Scholar, Scholar"
Video: Abe’s family’s YouTube channel: "Sunshine Mafia"
Video: Hope Works: "Answer the Call | Abe Mills"
Video: Hope Works: "One Question That Puts Life in Perspective | Stephen Jones"
Article: Deseret News Op-ed by J. Spencer Fluhman, "Harmony won't come until we recognize Racism as the problem"
Quote from the op-ed: "Authentic communion at the congregational level surely means making space for the burdens that come with our national history of racial injustice. Is there any hope for congregations of “one heart and one mind” if segments of Christ’s body cannot speak their pain or their anger at the persistent inequities that have long defined this national crisis? Surely membership in our covenant community requires more from us than comfortable obliviousness to the realities of our neighbors’ lives. Such a weighty history of American racism and its effects on our fellow Saints must demand our attention."
Quote: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?' Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” ― Marianne Williamson
3:40- Who Is Your Neighbor?
9:15- Mourn with Those That Mourn
14:33- Personal Experiences with Racism
30:14- The Body of Christ
41:06- Being a Diverse Voice in the Church
56:20- Peace and Hope in Troubled Times
1:02:16- What Does it Mean to be “All In” the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
Morgan Jones 0:00
In a joint op-ed penned by President Russell M. Nelson and leaders of the NAACP earlier this month, we read these words: "Unitedly, we declare that the answers to racism, prejudice, discrimination and hate will not come from government or law enforcement alone. Solutions will come as we open our hearts to those whose lives are different than our own, as we work to build bonds of genuine friendship, and as we see each other as the brothers and sisters we are—for we are all children of a loving God." It is our hope that, over the course of the 84 episodes we have recorded, this podcast has become a place for you to find peace and comfort in your efforts to follow Jesus Christ. But what was described in this op-ed, for many of us, is the soul-stretching work of stepping outside of our comfort zones and having difficult conversations. It requires listening, seeking to understand a perspective that may be different than our own, and then looking inward to explore ways we can be better moving forward than we have been in the past. So today, regardless of your race, your background or your position surrounding these issues, please join us in an important conversation as Abe Mills and Stephen Jones share their experiences as black members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Stephen Jones is a native of Tallahassee, Florida. He is a comedian and actor who is perhaps best recognized for the iconic BYU Library parody of an Old Spice commercial, which has been viewed 3.5 million times on YouTube. Today, Jones is also a seminary teacher, a husband, and a father. Abe Mills was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri. He also gained recognition during his time at BYU, where, in addition to playing on the football team, he performed as a BYU Young Ambassador and hosted a TV news program called Center Street. He went on to be a member of Jericho Road, a singing group that performed Christian music. These days, you can join over half a million people and following Abe and his family on their YouTube channel, Sunshine Mafia.
This is All In, an LDS Living podcast where we ask the question, "What does it really mean to be all in the gospel of Jesus Christ?" I'm Morgan Jones, and I am so, so honored to have Abe Mills and Stephen Jones with me this evening—we're recording this at night, I guess I should say that. Gentlemen, welcome.
Abe Mills 2:47
Thank you, Morgan.
Stephen Jones 2:48
Thank you, Morgan.
Morgan Jones 2:49
I am just so, so grateful for you two, and for your willingness to have the conversation that we're going to have on this episode. We have been trying at LDS Living—and I am going to get emotional—we've been trying so hard to figure out the best ways to provide members of the Church with good resources and things that will help them better understand what is happening in the world right now and, specifically, how we can be better brothers and sisters, all of us together. So thank you both for being willing to do this. As we start, I'm just gonna dive right into this: I am curious about what you wish the wider membership of our Church knew about your experience as an African-American Latter-day Saint. So I will let whoever likes to start, start us off.
Stephen Jones 3:53
So, what I wish people knew—just a wider membership of a Church—it's kind best to describe it in a story. But before I do, let me just make it clear: I consider myself to be black. What's interesting is that sometimes Caucasian members of the Church, they'll just assume that I'm black, and I'm fine with that. What's also true, though, is a lot of times people who are black, they'll say, "Well, he's not black. He's mixed." Which, I'm okay with that, I'm just saying it's kind of put me in this middle piece, right? Almost like this bridge. It's given me a unique lens. So I want to tell that story. When I was teaching seminary my first year, a student asked me, he said, "Brother Jones, when you die, and you're resurrected, are you going to be black?" And he was curious. He wasn't just trying to be funny. He kind of felt embarrassed to ask it. And I just sat there and I thinking like, "I don't know, does he think that I'm going to be white, what does he think? What is it that's going through his mind?"
And then as I thought about it more, I came to this conclusion. I was like, "You know what? When you hear about God coming down from heaven"—and for example, with Joseph Smith, the way that Joseph Smith describes God, as he says, "I saw a light exactly over my head above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me," and he talks about the light being glorious and amazing and brighter than noonday. I thought about this, and I was like, "You know what, when I'm resurrected, I'm going to be light. And I don't mean that to say that, culturally, obviously, there are cultural elements to who I am. But I feel like we all, the broader understanding from the Church, I wish that people would truly take to heart what it really means to be a child of God.
I think that sometimes, our experience that we give to people is based on the mortal existence that we have, but in reality and in the truth, we've existed for a long time, my identity originated with God. And obviously, we're going to continue that identity through the rest of eternity. So if we were to treat each other that way—and I'm not saying like, you hear a lot of talks about "black lives matter," or, "No, no, no, all lives matter." That's not what I'm saying. That's not the type of conversation that I'm trying to bring up. I'm trying to bring up the idea that we must treat everyone with the lens that our identity is children of God before anything else.
Abe Mills 6:37
Yeah. So to piggyback on that a little bit, the thing that I keep coming back to is, people make it so confusing. They make it so much more confusing than it really should be. When we think of Christ, and when he was talking to the Pharisees, and the question was, "Who is your neighbor?" Because he said, "What's the greatest commandment?" They were trying to get him in a scenario. And of course, he said the first one is to love God and the second one is to love your neighbor. Then, of course, they wanted to get smart and say, "Well, who's your neighbor?" Then he came back and told them a story about some a race of people that were completely different, and that hadn't had good relations. And yet, this person that was supposed to be the enemy was the one out of all the three who saved the person and sacrificed to help the person. That's the story of the Good Samaritan. So, to me, it's as simple as coming down to, to love God and love your neighbor.
Of course, we know a lot of this is the golden rule, which is "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." And when we really ask ourselves that question, "Would I want someone to do this and treat me in this way, if this were my background, and this was the experience that I had?" If we ask those questions, it becomes so simple. We don't have to ask a lot of other questions, because then it comes down to "Well, what would you want someone to do to you?" And then if people think of it like that, it's really that simple. Unfortunately, we live in a world where that's not the first question, it's not the second question, it's not the third question. You know what I mean? So it becomes very confusing for people because they want to know, "Well, how should I treat you? What should I do?" And it's like, "Think about it. How would you want to be treated? What would you want to be called? What would you want people to say about you or think about you?" And as we get into that, it causes people to actually look inside and not think on a surface level, but to think super deep, like, "Oh, I've never really thought about how I would want to be treated in that way." Because many of those people have never had to think about that, because I've never been in a situation where that was an issue for them. And so that's what I hope that, as a Church, that we can come across because I believe there are so many chances that we miss out on to really show ourselves living in that way.
Morgan Jones 9:12
Yeah, thank you both so much. Before we move forward, I want to come back to something that Stephen touched on. And that is, right now there's a lot of conversation around why saying "all lives matter" can be hurtful. I think in the past, there's been kind of this idea of among some people that saying, "Well, I don't see color," is okay. Why is it so important for us to recognize color? And why are we saying right now, "black lives matter"? We're not saying that other lives don't matter. We're just saying that these lives, they matter to us enough to engage in these tough conversations.
Stephen Jones 10:05
Right when you said that, it made me think of President Nelson in the press release that they had most recently, him talking about linking arms, arm-in-arm. And one of the pieces—I don't have it memorized, I don't have it in front of my face—there's a piece in there where he invites us to listen to each other. And I bring that up because I think that sometimes when people say that "all lives matter" or "black lives matter." I don't even know if that's relevant. I mean, you can get caught up in so many conversations in that context. But the idea is there are people that I think sometimes people might think, "Well, I don't have an issue." And that could be true, but at the same time, there are people who are just hurting, there are people who are sad. This has been a roller coaster for a lot of people, regardless of whatever you believe about it. There are people who are in pain. And right now, it happens to be black people. It could change. But I'm saying, we just need to listen, and you could change that up for any conversation. We're talking baptismal covenants, right? If you're hurting, you just want somebody to listen to you.
Abe Mills 11:24
Mourn with those that mourn, comfort those that stand in need of comfort. We preach it. And when you have these opportunities to do it, sometimes we get too caught up in talking about things like "all lives matter" versus "black lives matter." When black people, in general, have felt like their lives don't matter for so many years, people can understand if you start to think about it, why that would be offensive to someone to say "all lives matter." Because if all lives did matter, then why are we still seeing these type of people dying in the way that they're dying, and being killed and the way they're being killed? And people are still seeking justice.
I mean, it's been going on my whole life and years before that. And so, like you said, when people listen, and they really understand what people are saying, whenever they say something like "black lives matter," listen a little more deeply and mourn with those that mourn, comfort those that stand in need of comfort. And if they know that you stand by them, then that's really what we're all about. That's what we want to be about. And I think, to be honest, I've been around a long time, and I've seen more people listening now than I've ever seen. And I think while people are still frustrated, and acting out on those frustrations, I think more people are listening now than have ever been.
Stephen Jones 13:02
I have four boys, and say one kid gets hurt, right? And feels hurt, let's say somebody verbally said something to them like, "I might think that's not a big deal. Come on, come on." And then I go to my son, I listen to him and my other son is like, "Dad, don't you care?" "Of course I care about you, son. Of course I care about all my kids. But right now this particular child, he didn't feel he's heard, so I'm gonna listen to him." I don't know if that makes any sense.
Morgan Jones 13:35
No, that's a great analogy and something that everybody can relate to. Sometimes somebody needs a little bit of extra love. I will tell you guys, one reason that I really wanted to do this is because I have a couple of black friends that I really love and appreciate. And I called last week and had some conversations with them that were so helpful to me, and I walked away feeling so grateful that they were willing to have that conversation and share things with me, but then I was talking to someone else that same evening, and she said, "I want to listen, I just don't know anybody to listen to." And so my hope is that this podcast will give people someone to listen to. And not just anyone, but someone who shares their faith in Jesus Christ. So another question that I have for you both, are there any experiences with racism in the Church that you'd feel comfortable sharing?
Abe Mills 14:44
It's interesting, we talking about racism in the church, because I'm trying to think of what to share. I mean, because there are a lot of examples. My wife and I, our family—we have a YouTube channel—we went on there and kind of shared some experiences, because I do believe that, a lot of times, when you have situations like this, it's easy for people that haven't experienced it personally, or haven't seen other people experience it personally, can kind of cast it off. Like, "These are people that are just sour about it, and they're complaining." And so when you have somebody like me, that they know, and I can come out and say, "Hey, this is some stuff that has happened to me." I think it's good to have those without sharing too much negativity, or meaning to drag people down, but to be able to share these experiences. Because I think it's important for people to know that this happens on a regular basis.
Just to kind of talk about dating in the Church for a minute: if you asked somebody that was a member of the Church, "What's important about who your daughter marries?" they would list the whole list of things they want her to find a husband, and they usually wouldn't say something like, "and I want my daughter's husband to be white." But I've dated lots of people where, when it got to that point where it looked like it might be serious enough to lead to marriage, that will became a huge issue for people. And I will say that, when we did this in our vlog, I never said anything about the Church, because I didn't want to kind of give that negative vibe that everybody in the Church is like that, because it's certainly not the only time that I've had issues with dating people, even though I've had lots of issues with this. Because when it comes down to someone's daughter or someone's family, that's when I believe that it's easier for the fears that people have and the ignorance that people have... I think it's easier for that ignorance to come out and those fears to come out.
So that's one of the biggest things where I've dated people and I full-on had people call me and say, "My dad won't let me date you anymore. He's the Institute Director of whatever university, but he won't let me date you anymore. I don't know how many times I've been sent quotes by General Authorities so many times on books that were written before the revelation. I've been given those quotes so many times. And when you come out and tell people, "Jeffrey R. Holland came out and said that there wasn't a reason that they can point to for this," people will go, "Well, that can't be true. Where does it say that?" And you have to show them. I want you to take that and use it how you will. I feel like, some of this stuff, I don't want to drag the Church through the mud.
Morgan Jones 17:47
No, but I think, Abe, you touch on a very important point. And I think that is that just because something was said in the past and it has been disavowed doesn't mean that people don't sometimes bring that up. And you can say like, "Hey, read the gospel topics essay, listen to what Elder Holland's saying, listen to what Elder Ballard has said," it doesn't matter. Sometimes it seems like people are not recognizing that that is doctrine, and that's the most current doctrine that we have.
Abe Mills 18:26
Right. So those are what my experiences have been a lot with dating, just people straight up saying, "You cannot date him anymore. You cannot." A lot of girls will follow their parents in that way, and I don't blame them. But I had to get used to kind of asking myself, "What is the real reason behind all these people?" And so, living in Utah, it took me a couple of years to get used to it, just because it's such a different place. When you move anywhere in the nation, and it's new, and there's a different culture, it takes a while to get used to it. But it took me a while just because I felt like once I figured out that it wasn't about them like I was kind of putting everything that I was angry about that people were doing and I'm just going, "These people, blah blah blah." Once I realized that it was more about me, and I kind of took that into myself, and my responsibility to be a person that lived the stories I was telling before, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."
Once I realized that that was my opportunity to teach people, and I started realizing—like you said, you have a friend that doesn't know and have anybody to call that's black—so I realized, that's probably the part of the problem. People would adopt kids and they would ask me, "Well, what can I do to show my black kids a good black person?" I was like, "Well, how many black friends do you have?" and people would be like, "Uhhh." And I'm like, "Okay, well, first of all, you might want to have a black friend that comes to your house." Kids look at that. You might be saying, "black people are great, black people are great, but man, we don't have any black people around our house." But I feel like when you have these opportunities to interact with people is when fears and ignorances go away. So when you have that opportunity, take the time. I would say most of my racist experiences in the Church have been because of that type of ignorance. Stephen, I know you have something to add to that, because I'm sure you've had plenty of experiences.
Stephen Jones 20:44
So I like to think about it like this. I had a church leader—let me give you a perspective. Coming from Florida moving to Utah, and I think that we got to be clear that we're talking culture. A lot of times we have these issues about Church, when really we're talking about culture. And I think that's important to draw that line. Also, we need to remember that we live in a fallen world. We live in a world where the natural man is an enemy to God. And I'm not trying to make that really extreme, I'm just saying that. I've noticed the most issues. Like when I was in Florida in the panhandle. So I had a girl that I was dating, I was 16, we thought we were in love. And her dad wasn't a member, and I'd call and I'd just imagine, what are the worst things that could be said.
Abe Mills 21:40
Stephen Jones 21:41
That really happened.
Abe Mills 21:42
Stephen Jones 21:43
So this is back before you had a cell phone, but you can call somebody and say, "Hey, may I please speak with so and so? And you'd have to wait. And then I'd be like, "Man, her dad's gonna pick up." Because her mom was cool, but her dad was like, "Are you on the phone?" and so that's where I come from. So like my dad, for example, when he got baptized in the 70s, he was married to my mom, she was white. This was not a popular thing. At all. This kind of shows you, my dad didn't care what anybody thinks about anything. So, my dad, he would fight people. Like, I mean, my dad was mean. He's 5'6", 160 pounds, he bench-pressed 475. He didn't care what anybody thought he's like, "I like white girls. I'm gonna date her." He didn't care. And people wouldn't home teach with him, but my dad never left the Church. He won't. He can't, he's just so founded in Christ.
But what's interesting is, when I came to Utah, I think where we get the friction from is the expectation. Because we automatically say, "Okay, member of the Church equals perfect. Member the Church equals no fear. Member of the church equals they've never done anything negative." And I'm not making excuses, I'm just saying, after I've thought about this for myself, these are some of the thoughts that have come to help me really see what's happening. Because the behavior is what's on the surface, but there's always something underneath. A lot of times, that's usually something that people don't understand, or they don't believe. And a lot of it that I've found personally has been just fear. They don't know. And maybe there are these prejudices, which sometimes we call it racism, and sometimes it's prejudice. It's fast and efficient to say, "I've seen a person like this before, so they're like that." And I think that that's what we need to be careful of with anything, is to take something and see it, to see your neighbor as yourself. And that's a dangerous word: as yourself, like yourself. But we're fallen, and sometimes we always see other people with fear.
Abe Mills 24:02
This reminds me—when I was in Utah, I would go to church and I would catch people just staring. And I was like, "Man, why these people staring at me so much?" And so after a while, I realized they were staring at me because they were probably thinking, "Dude, I wonder what that guy's like." I don't know what questions they were asking themselves. But ultimately, what I figured out was, it was the statement from Marianne Williamson. She said basically, we are children of God, right? And the gist of it is that you can't hide yourself. You were meant to shine. But the thing is, is that the part of the quote that I love the most says, "As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence actually liberates others." So what I got from that was, "Okay, if I go in here and I'm quiet and I sit back, and I look," and all people aren't liking me, right? So I can't expect that of everyone else. But I think if everybody kind of takes this onto themselves, I think we'll find enough middle ground for this all to work out.
What I started doing was, if somebody was staring at me, or I walked into a room of people staring at me, I would walk up to the person that was staring the hardest and be like, "My name is Abe, how you doing? Nice to meet you. Tell me a little about this, I'm from so and so or whatever." And then pretty soon, people were like, "Oh, you need to meet Brother So and So." And then all of a sudden, we go into wards now and people think that we know people. They'll come in there and be like, "Hey, you know, Brother So and So." And I'm like, "Man, you've been in this award for eight years. You don't notice, dude? I moved here last month." And I realized that people start thinking like, "Oh, this guy must know everybody." But really all I was doing was just being liberated from my own fear. Once I was liberated from my own fear, then other people felt libertated. It's crazy how it happens, but try it. It works. And once I realized that in Utah, then I didn't have nearly as many problems with people staring at me, for what reason are they staring at me and whatever, because then I would just be like, "Hey, what's going on man?" And then people would go, "Oh, yeah, hi, this is different. This is a different experience." Because people don't normally act that way. But that's something that I found, and I kind of took it upon myself. And it changed my life, to be honest, because like I said, it took me a couple years just to get used to the different culture. And that's what we do in the Church, is we separate. We want to separate culture from what we know as doctrine and in the way the Church operates.
Morgan Jones 26:59
I think those are such good points, and I think it's important. One thing that I was thinking about, so I'm so glad that you brought it up, the fact that racism can manifest itself in different ways depending on where you live. I grew up in North Carolina, and I've lived in Utah for the last 10-ish years, and so I've seen like two very different kinds of racism. I was talking to this friend of mine last week, and she also grew up on the East Coast, but has lived in Utah. And she was like, "Yeah, two very different things, both equally hurtful." And so I think it's important to examine ourselves. I know for me—and I have done a lot of reflecting—I grew up in a community that was actually majority black, and I played basketball growing up, and so I was often on teams where I was the only, or one of a few, white people. And I've realized over the last couple weeks, I was really good friends with those girls. And they were really good friends to me, super consistent, super good, very little drama. And yet, I didn't think of them as my best friends. And I lost out on that. That's on me.
So I think that it's so important for us to each look inward and say, "Okay, maybe I have always been kind. I've always tried to be kind to people of color, but maybe I can do better in some way." And maybe that's inviting them into my home for dinner, or to hang out, or to have people around like you said, and I think that that is so important. Another thing that you touched on that I think is very valuable is this idea that everyone, regardless of whether we're talking color or religion or where you're from, we're all our own individual people. And so it's unfair to lump everyone of a certain color together. Even in this conversation, I think people will see that here are two black men who have had completely different experiences. I got a text the other day from a dear friend that said, "Hey, you're from North Carolina. Do you know a good rub for barbecue meat?" And I don't really, I don't really eat meat.
Abe Mills 29:43
Listen, I'm black and I know how good the barbecue is, but I don't know how to make it.
Stephen Jones 29:49
Wait, the rub. The barbecues are different in different areas of the South too, like the texture is different. It's different.
Morgan Jones 29:55
And in North Carolina, we eat the vinegar-based barbecue. So that's a completely different ballgame. So let me be clear, I like barbecue, but I don't eat a ton of it. All I'm saying is I don't think that we can lump everybody together into one category. So I'm so glad that you guys touched on that as well. One of the things that one of my friends brought up is, she actually read a quote to me, that was in an op-ed in the Deseret News, and it talked about being part of the body of Christ. One thing that she said, in her experience, there's kind of this idea that, in order to be a faithful member of the Church and be a black person, you kind of have to check your pain at the door and leave your feelings. Don't bring it into Sunday School, don't talk about these things. Has that been your experience? And if that has been, what can we do to better encourage conversation, rather than making people feel that way?
Stephen Jones 31:01
This happens in a lot of different ways from people that I know personally and even if I bring something up. Because for me, it's just interesting from my lens too, because, like I said, I grew up with a Caucasian woman in my home, like I understand white culture very well. Very, very well. I understand black culture very, very well. But then if I even bring it up, people are like, "Oh, but we don't care about that." And so when that happens again and again and again and again—and it doesn't have to be that exact conversation—it kind of gets stifled over and over and over and over again. And so then, I don't want to say that it could potentially build up for some people, but it's almost like we're so scared to talk about it at all. I'll give you an example. Maybe that'd be easier.
I remember I was saying something—because I'm a comedian too—I have a lot of jokes that are racially based, but a lot of times people don't realize, this is just really what happened. I'm not just trying to make a random joke. These punch lines are, in some cases, they're really pain. I mean, maybe subconsciously to me, these experiences that I bring up. But the interesting thing is, it's funny because it's true. It's funny because it happens. So that was kind of a way for me to express my voice in a way that wasn't just a punch in the face. If you notice, there's a lot of funny black people. And I think it's because of the idea that there's a lot of funny black comedians—there's a lot of funny comedians, period—but let me give you a specific example, more detailed. I had somebody make a comment once before, they said, "Man, all your jokes are about, like, black stuff, blah blah blah. Even with the jokes, all your jokes have undertones of like racial humor. You only do racial humor." And I'm like, that's because if I bring it up, just straight up, everybody gets quiet. Or if I bring it up straight up, people get scared. If I bring it up straight up, then people just want to back away slowly, or it invokes pain. And so, I don't know where I'm going with this, but I just think that like, it's just something to consider. Why is it that it's stifled in the first place? And why can't we talk about it? I don't know the answer to that. I can only guess. And I don't think that is fair for me, from my perspective to say, why does that happen? I don't know. Does that make any sense?
Abe Mills 33:35
It makes complete sense. And I'll add on to it. First of all, I think there are two different types of people. I think there's people that want to teach the lesson every time somebody messes it up, and I'm okay with that because my wife is like that. A lot of times I'll just go, "Go ahead honey," because she will set you straight. You say something racist, she will set you straight. And I think there are also people like me, who are more like kind of selective with when I say things because I want to try to get them the greatest impact possible, right? And she gets great impact as well with the way she does it, but I think we need, we need all different types of people who are willing to bring it up whenever, wherever, and people who are looking for those moments. So for instance, just to give you an example, I had a neighbor in Utah, and her comment was, "Oh, we spent a lot of time in Brooklyn in New York." And I was like, "Oh, tell me a little about it." And she's like, "Oh, my gosh, it was so scary at first because I got there and I was the only white person." And so the first thing I said to her, I saw this opportunity. I said, "You know what? I totally know what you feel like because that's the way I felt when I moved into this neighborhood." And she looked at like, what? And then she was like, "Oh, oh, yeah. Wow, that that really sounded... I'm sorry. Yeah, I didn't realize how that sounded." So I took my opportunity at that point in time to say that.
Now, sometimes I'll let that kind of stuff pass if the moment isn't there, if it's in a different setting, because I want to make sure that she's actually getting what I'm saying. So I've had that those conversations and those opportunities come up several times, and taken those opportunities, but that's the type of thing that people will say, and it's like, "All right, do we say something?" I do think it's necessary. I don't think it's meant for us to put our pain on the altar and say, "Okay, God, I'm not gonna say nothing in here because I think it's gonna mess up the Church meeting if I say something." No, I think that we need voices, and whether it's a voice that saying that the way that I would say it, or whether there's a voice in it the way that my wife would say it, with a voice saying it the way the Tamu Smith was said or Zandra Vrains, or Stephen would say it, we need people to raise their voices.
The way that my father puts it is like this: "You need me to get to heaven. You need me to get to the Celestial Kingdom. Because we all know that if you have feelings between people you can't enter the Celestial Kingdom." You know, you've heard these words before. There is a specific feeling that needs to exist in these situations and listen, my father is like, "Hey, I know that I'll be there. So if you have a problem with me, I'm helping you to solve that problem before you get to that point. Because there will not be riots in the Celestial Kingdom. There will not be wars in the Celestial Kingdom. All of this stuff will be done away with, and right now is the time to do away with it. So if you find in your heart that there's something going on where you talk about the body of Christ, we are one and we are one family. And if we see ourselves in the place where we all say that we want to be, then we can't have problems with the person that's sitting across from us. So we need each other to get there in the right way.
Stephen Jones 37:14
Yeah, I mean, to me, sometimes these kind of conversations, I like to talk about the root of the issue, because on the surface, you're going to go in a circle again and again and again, and I'm trying to get back to the—well, I don't want to get back to the question. I'm just trying to make sure that I understood what you meant, because I feel like there's a difference between in church, and you can talk about church doctrine, or you can just talk about your experience as just a different person, period. Or you can talk about your experience in a relationship, you know. When I bring up race in general, a lot of times, people that I see—and I'm looking at this from a lot of angles—if people seem to be upset, it's probably not because of what just happened. It's because there's been a pattern over time of not feeling like you could speak up.
But you see this in a lot of areas as well, like, I think culturally in the Church—and it's not this way around the whole world, but maybe more in the United States—it's changed a lot, where you can't speak up about stuff. And if you do, people are like, "Well, don't ask questions." I think that we're past that. I personally think President Nelson, all of the prophets and apostles, we can go and say all these things, but all I hear is, "Listen to people. Speak up. Ask questions." So let me just give you some background—this is a tangent, forgive me. I've done a lot of research in different areas, on things like anti-Mormon doctrine to help students understand what they're coming up against. I've had a lot of conversations about the details, but I have yet to have a conversation where it's like, "Wait, this piece says this about God. He said it here. I don't know if I agree with that. I don't believe that this teaches that Jesus is like this or like that."
Like, that's the stuff that I feel like are the foundational things that are really at the root of all of these conversations and truly understanding the gospel of Jesus Christ. And not just knowing it, but living according to the gospel. That would allow us to not get offended, that would allow us to not offend. But again, we live in a fallen world, and we've got to be mindful that other people are going to make mistakes, other people are going to say things that hurt us. I'm gonna say things that hurt people too. And I'm not trying to water this down. I'm just saying that it's important to realize that the Atonement of Jesus Christ is real. Like, "Is Jesus Christ real?" That's a harder question to answer than some of these other conversations.
Abe Mills 40:23
Yeah. And I do believe that, in the Gospel, we believe that it's not easy, right? And I think that it, these are challenges that people have, and I think God's allowing these challenges for people in order to have us return to Him and be more dependent upon Him. So when we get to these issues, we're looking in lots of places, sometimes, maybe the wrong places, but I think we look to Him first and then like I said, all other things will be added to us. And that's in every aspect.
Morgan Jones 41:06
Let me ask you both this: One thing that is interesting about both of you is that, at different times, you have been kind of a public face for the Church, or in Stephen's case, BYU, and you were too, right? Were you a Young Ambassador? Did I read that?
Abe Mills 41:27
Yeah, I was a Young Ambassador at BYU. I was on a TV show called "Center Street." I loved doing that show, I love working on that show. It was an amazing show. But I got a chance to do that.
Morgan Jones 41:38
So let me ask you this: Based on those experiences, between all of the different things that you both have done, did you ever get tired of being "the face of diversity"? And how did you get to a point of feeling like your testimony was strong enough to be a public face? Because I would imagine that there are probably some wrestles that come along with like, "Do I want to be that person?" And I don't think everybody has to be. But how did all of that work for you?
Stephen Jones 42:22
We've both been the token black guy, I think. You know what, I've never had anybody ask that question before. That's a really good question.
Abe Mills 42:30
Yeah, let me jump on it. There's a couple different things that I will say. The first time that I had an opportunity be in Young Ambassadors, I turned it down. And it was because I felt like I was getting it because I was black. I was getting into it because I was black. And that just kind of turned me off, to be honest. And this is nothing against Young Ambassadors or any director of Young Ambassadors. I think that, if anything, looking back on that, they were trying to get more diversity and they were trying to go, "How do we appeal to a wider audience?" Because we were going to go to Africa. And I think that they just knew they needed to have more diversity. And to be honest with you, I just got mad. I was like, "No, I don't want to do it. I don't want to do it because I got this part because I'm black." And that was really just the way I felt about it at the time. I changed my mind and ended up going into it, and I was so grateful. It was a blessing to me.
I think there are times when, when I first went to BYU, it was like, anytime somebody was having a discussion or a panel about blacks and the priesthood, they would like say, "Hey, we'd be on this panel? We're gonna talk about blacks and the priesthood. We want to find out what you think about it." I was like, "Okay," so I just guessed like, over and over and over and over again and got like, to the point where I was like, "All right, I already know what I'm gonna say." So I didn't have to prepare for it anymore. I was just like, "Okay, I can do this in my sleep now." So yeah, it gets tiring. But at the same time, like I said, I feel like, in a way, it's an opportunity. And I can look at it as a missed opportunity. If I want things to change, I can't sit back in my corner and just hope that they do, and point fingers at people. If I want things to change, or I want people to be informed, then I have to take that on myself to be the one that informs them, the one that does what I can and uses my talents in whatever way I can. And God gives us all different talents in different ways.
So as we see different people around that might be in the same shoes as us, like Stephen, I look at Stephen and I'm not looking to him saying, "Well, Stephen didn't handle that like I would," or like Alex Boye and saying, "Well, Alex didn't handle that like I would," or looking at Tamu and saying, "Well, she's not handling that like that would." I look at them and I look at their different talents and say, "Man, I'm glad that we have different people with different types of talents that are able to go out there and be a face." Because I do believe that people need to understand that the gospel is diverse. I think sometimes people, we get into a cookie-cutter mode of "Oh, this is what it means. And this is what it looks like. And this is what it smells like." And people, that's not what it looks like. It's not what it looks like, it looks like this. And it looks like you. And it looks like you, Stephen. And it looks like several of my friends I know that are from other countries. When you look at God's family, it's very diverse. So I think anything that I can do to help put it into people's minds, to move them closer to the concept of the diversity of God's family, then I'm all for it. But yeah, it can be tiring, because sometimes it requires being on all the time and that's not easy to do.
Stephen Jones 46:02
That's an interesting point. Here's the thing that I think would happen a lot, let me give you a couple examples. I'm walking into the Smith Fieldhouse at BYU, I've got a little luggage thing, and I literally have the gentleman come up to me and says, he like pauses and he's like, "Track. Track?" And I'm like, "No, no." But if I'm thinking about myself, if I'm thinking about me, and how they perceive me, then it's easy for me to go down this road of like, "Dang, I'm tired of it." But I had a blessing one time, this is kind of a little bit more personal—and I feel like it's appropriate to share—where when somebody's hands were on my head, and it said that your race is a calling. And I'd never thought about it like that. What I meant is, as I've thought about that, there are definitely people where—like, the church is international—in places like Africa, the majority of the congregation is African. South Africa has more diversity there. And I don't claim to know everything about the details. I'm just saying that this is a church that is preparing for the coming of Christ, and for me, if I can be a voice, if I can be a perspective, if I can be an image that can represent what the real Church really is, as I've thought about this more, I'm okay with that. But every time when I was a kid, I would get a call from the missionaries every time they were teaching somebody black. They would never called me up for anybody else, only when they were black people. That's the difference. You see what I'm saying?
Abe Mills 48:00
Stephen Jones 48:00
Do you know what I'm saying? We all should get to know everyone. And like President Nelson said, to serve people who are different, and to hear them. Not just black people, all people. I feel like that makes a really healthy environment, because that's what it's going to be like in the millennium, you know? If we can break those barriers down to really represent what the true image is, I'm okay with that.
Abe Mills 48:27
And I think part of that question too is that, have you ever felt hesitant to do that, because the Church isn't perfect and because of any of the weaknesses that you've seen in church members? And I just gotta say, what it does for me is, I think we're asking the wrong question. If we're looking at like, well, how can you be member of the Church? Because when I tell people they're like "Oh, wow, Utah? That's gotta be racist blah blah blah," or "How can you be a member of that Church because blah blah blah, they're racist and this and that," and I say, you're asking the wrong question. The question isn't, "How can I be a member of this Church?" The question is, how can people like your father, Stephen; and my father; and Darius Gray; and Elijah Abel, how could they join the church before black people could hold the priesthood? And yet, their conviction was so strong, and their conviction and conversion was so personal with God, that they cannot deny it, and can't leave the Church. They can't leave it. Because even though people will be racist in the Church, they were not converted to the people, they were converted to the gospel.
Once they became converted to the gospel—I don't want to say it didn't matter what people did—but for them, they were going to withstand what people were doing and saying because they knew what God had in store for them. And so I give a shout out to those men who are real pioneers. Elijah Abel was an actual pioneer that went across the plains, but your father, and my father, Darius Gray, who was the leader of Genesis, the original leader of Genesis group, those are some real pioneers there. And I just have to give a shout out to them, because they taught me that's the question that you should be asking. How is it that those men stay faithful in the Church with all of those things going on around them? And why would they do that if it wasn't true? That's the question that you should be asking. And so when I ask myself the question in that way, I go, "Wow." I take my hat off to those guys, because you see what's going on now today, you say, "Well, that can't shake my faith." If what was going on then couldn't shake their faith, then what's going on now can't shake my faith.
Stephen Jones 50:39
You can't tell my dad that the Church isn't true. You can't.
Abe Mills 50:41
Right. Regardless of what he's seen and experienced... that's the way it was with my father as well.
Morgan Jones 50:51
I just want to say something really quick before we move on to the next question, and that is, I went when they did "Be One" celebration—I was in the Conference Center. And they started talking about some of these people—Jane Manning James, Elijah Abel—and the people stood up. There was like a standing ovation. And I just remember thinking, that standing ovation was so overdue. So overdue. But I also think that like, I know that was you, Abe, trying to say, if my dad could handle this, then I have no room to talk. But I actually do think that you do have room to talk, and I think that we should also give hats off to our black brothers and sisters and recognize that, in order to be a faithful member of the Church, we all grapple with different things, but to be a black member of the Church, you have to look at the history and come to a point of believing, regardless. So I just want to say, hats off to you. And you may want to cast that aside, but I just think that if we all recognize that a little bit more, then that would create a space for people to feel like, "They understand that this might be a hard thing, let's talk about it. They want to listen to my experience, let's talk about it."
Stephen Jones 52:28
I just want to say, I was able to play Elijah Abel in a movie that's not out yet, and it really gave me a completely different lens, just doing research and thinking about his character. People went through some hard things. And I think that the thing that comes to my mind is their stories. There are so many stories that have never been told. Like, you know, the popular ones, right? But this the name of this movie is called Green Flake. Green Flake was a slave. There's not that much information about him, but there are countless stories like that, of trailblazers that came across the plains who were black, who were slaves, in some instances, that I feel like it was really interesting to learn all of that, but they're still available. I think that maybe we can tell more of those stories, because they are a part of our history. And I think people are scared to bring them up because of some of the pain from it, but these people's voices, their voices have not been heard at all.
Abe Mills 53:44
Hark Lay is one of them. I played Elijah Abel in "I Am Jane." That was the first time I heard of Jane Manning James and man, how grateful are we that her story has been told, and Elijah Abel being a part of that story, and Anthony Stebbins, who was also with her, and like you said, Green Flake, Hark Lay. You start looking at these stories of pioneers who came across the plains, and Jane Manning James, I'm sorry I didn't bring her up earlier, but she stayed faithful to the Church until she passed away in Salt Lake City, and is buried there. Yeah, I'm with you on that. And I hope you know, I'm sorry that it may sound like I was casting away, like if my father can do it, I can. I just feel like, what an example of true faith. But I do think that, like you said, I think that there is room for us to speak up. And I think that—I'm trying to remember the scripture, how it is when you teach and the person that's receiving and you can both be edified, you remember that?
Morgan Jones 54:56
Stephen Jones 54:57
Abe Mills 54:58
My man. Yeah. So you can be edified together, right? And so I feel like when we speak, we have to take an opportunity to listen, and both be edified. If we take it as a scolding as members of the Church. There's opportunities for us to speak up, and there's also opportunities for people to listen, and those who are on the listening end, depending on what we're talking about, at any given time have that ability to both be edified, and to look at it in that way. And I hope that that's the route that we take when we're dealing with these issues.
Stephen Jones 55:41
What I think, going back to your comment, Morgan, was the idea of like, because we can start to speak up more, to allow these people who have done so much a standing ovation, to let their voices be heard, and let their story be told. Not just in one conference, but even more. You've got to figure out ways to connect with them. But anyway, I think that's an interesting point that you brought up.
Morgan Jones 56:11
Abe, don't worry, I knew what you were saying. I just didn't want us not to touch on that, because I do think that it's important. I just have two more questions before we're done. The first one is, can you tell me what the gospel of Jesus Christ has meant for you, or means for you right now, in your life?
Abe Mills 56:32
I can say that the understanding and peace that I get, like even in the troubled times that we're in right now, I can say that there's a sense of peace and a sense of understanding that I have that I wouldn't have if I didn't understand the gospel. If I were not a member of the Church and understood the way that God works, and the way that Christ works and how He wants us to be. If I had less of an understanding of that, then I think these troubled times would definitely cause me more anxiety. I would be more troubled. So at times like this, I'm so grateful for the understanding that I have of God's plan, and understanding that I have of how Christ wants us to treat each other. And I'm grateful because—to be married and have my family—my wife has been a true pillar to me in terms of the gospel, and I'm grateful to have someone who is as strong in the Gospel and has a desire to live the gospel as I do. So we've been able to lift each other up, and been able to really offer each other understanding from the different perspectives that we have. And I believe that that's made us both better people.
Stephen Jones 58:15
When I was 12 years old, I had a youth leader invite me to read the Book of Mormon, and it changed my life. My dad, my parents were divorced when I was six. My dad was always a part of my life—and I forgive him—when I was 14 to about 18, I didn't even know where it was. I don't hold that against them. But the Book of Mormon was what saved me. This book, every page is about Jesus Christ. And when he gave me that challenge, he said, "Just read one verse a day, one verse went to two, two to three, started reading every day. This book is about Christ, and it teaches me who He is. And just having that go through my mind on a daily basis, I feel like that's literally what has given me the perspective that I have now, and it's just a little bit at a time.
And one of the things that I read recently that really hit me, it's crazy, it was Mosiah 3:11. It says, For behold, and also his blood atoneth for the sins of those who have fallen by the transgression of Adam, who have died not knowing the will of God concerning them, or who have ignorantly sinned. And I had a teacher that was teaching this lesson, and he brought up the idea that God died for those people, who the conditions that are not our fault, if that makes sense. And I think that that's important, it's changed my view of who He is. The gospel is about him. It's about what He did. It's about how He can redeem all of us. Everybody has challenges, everybody struggles. And every single issue that I can see that's going on right now in this world is addressed in this book. It is. Every single issue. And I feel like this was saving me right now, and giving me peace right now. I'm not saying it's gonna be easy, but this book changes my whole perspective because it's 100% about Him and what He can do for all of us to bring us back into the presence of God.
Abe Mills 1:00:39
And understanding Jesus Christ, I believe for me, and this is really what you were saying is that, understanding what he did for us, it gives us hope. We live in a world for a lot of people that have no hope or they've lost their hope. Whether it's hope in equality, hope in fairness, hope in whatever. They've lost their hope, but the gospel has taught us hope, because we know what Jesus Christ did for us. It has taught us understanding because we know that Christ was the example of understanding. And on top of that has taught us forgiveness or how to forgive in a time where forgiveness is needed greatly. So I appreciate you saying that, Steve.
Stephen Jones 1:01:26
I've had people say this, I get this question a lot. Why do bad things happen to good people? And I've thought about that a lot. It's one of the questions I get so often, and I wanted to make an image of Christ, with Christ on the cross, with his hands pierced and bleeding, and it having the question, "why do bad things happen to good people?" If there's anybody who knows and understands that, it's Him. And that's why He knows how to help us when we struggle through the things that were not even our fault, that we receive at someone else's hand, or the things that we've done. So He really... we can't forget that.
Morgan Jones 1:02:13
Yeah. Thank you both. The last question that I have for you is the the question that we ask at the end of every episode of this podcast, and that is, what does it mean to you to be all in the gospel of Jesus Christ?
Stephen Jones 1:02:35
To be all in the Gospel, I can't help but think about baptism. And one day I had this thought, it reminded me of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, when He bled from every pore. He was completely covered in His blood for us. And so to be all in the gospel, to me, is sacrifice. It is consecration. It's giving of yourself, giving everything you've got. Everything. It's doing what He did. He set the tone, He set the example for us to give everything as best we can,o that his sacrifice isn't for naught.
Morgan Jones 1:03:16
Thank you, Stephen. Abe?
Abe Mills 1:03:18
To me, being all in, I talk to my kids about it, we have discussions all the time. I've talked about our YouTube channel, and we share the gospel on our YouTube channel. And we don't share the gospel by going on and saying, "Hey, we're members of this church," and laying it out there like that. We just live. We talk about prayer, we talk about struggles, we talk about the scriptures, we talk about faith. Because it's what's in our lives. I had an experience a long time ago that we talked about, when I heard somebody say something sacrifice and consecration. And I thought to myself, "What does God keep putting into my heart?" And what God has put into my heart, and the way that He's allowed for all these things to happen has led me to this point.
Believe me, there are times when I just wish that my life wasn't all over YouTube. But at the same time, I feel like there are people that are being reached that wouldn't be reached otherwise. I don't know what God is doing half the time, but I trust that He's doing it. And when you say "all in," I think it means stepping forward into the darkness without being able to see what's on the other side of that, and just doing it because God has led us to this point, so we continue to step. And maybe He shows us just a little bit more, and we continue to step. And I believe that being all in means that we step towards where our heart is being led by the Lord. As we do those things, we throw ourselves into it, and we love. When you think about the gospel, it's all about love. And the more that we can have the love that Christ had, I just can't help but believe that the world would be such a better place, whether it's love within your family, whether it's love with those who you work with, love in your community, love with people that you have never met before. Love with different races, love with people of a different religion, love of different nations and nationalities.
It's like people say, you know, "They're family, gotta love 'em." It's like, that's really how the world is. And so we figure out, it's not an easy task, and a lot of times it requires a lot of prayer, a lot of fasting. But I believe that, you know, when we throw ourselves all into it and we're committed to that journey, even if, after mile five, we see a mountain, and we were really not expecting it. And that's really what it's meant for me and my family.
Morgan Jones 1:06:37
Thank you both so, so, so much, I've learned so much from our conversation, and you given me things to think about moving forward, and I hope this won't be the end of this conversation for all that listen, me included, and that we'll continue these conversations in our homes and in our communities and in our words, because I think that they matter. So thank you both from the bottom of my heart.
Abe Mills 1:07:06
Thank you, Morgan.
Stephen Jones 1:07:07
Thank you, Morgan
Abe Mills 1:07:07
And thanks, Stephen.
Stephen Jones 1:07:08
Morgan Jones 1:07:13
We are so grateful to Stephen Jones and Abe Mills for joining us on today's episode. Be sure to check out our show notes at ldsliving.com/allin for links to watch more from both Abe and Stephen. Thank you to Derek Campbell of Mix at 6 Studios for his help with this episode, and thanks to each of you for listening. We'll be with you again next week.